Ah yes; Peter Weir. The brains behind the Australian psychodrama Picnic At Hanging Rock (girls go on picnic, some go missing, people go nuts), the Australian mystical drama The Last Wave (murder occurs, dude becomes friends with a group of Aborigines, dude goes nuts) and the Australian war drama Gallipoli (dude goes and fights in a losing WWI battle; war makes people nuts) and…the heart-warming all-American prep school dramedy Dead Poets Society?
One of these is not like the others.
But it was a long road from film conception to asking Peter "Making Australia Seem Creepy Since 1970" Weir to sit his heiney in the director's chair.
Up for Grabs
Touchstone had several directors in mind for Dead Poets Society, all of whom had very different plans for the direction of the film. Jeff Kanew, director of the hits Revenge of the Nerds and Troop Beverly Hills, was initially given the gig.
Kanew had some pretty specific ideas about the film. He wanted Liam Neeson to play Mr. Keating, but Touchstone stood firm in their desire for Robin Williams to take the role. Unfortunately, Williams and Kanew just didn't see eye-to-eye. The first days of filming were disastrous.
So disastrous…that they even burned the sets when the project was eventually abandoned.
Yep. Burned 'em to the ground.
That's not the end of the story, though: there was also a brief interlude where Dustin Hoffman was slated to both direct and star in the film. This was nixed due to scheduling conflicts.
The studio kept searching. With the encouragement of writer Tom Schulman, they finally gave the gig to the Australian director Peter Weir, who had just directed Witness, a film about a boy who lives with the Amish as part of the witness protection program. It starred Harrison Ford and won two Oscars (and was nominated for plenty more), so he seemed like a safe bet.
It was. Weir was a natural fit for the script, which required sensitive, dramatic scenes as well as comedic timing. He and Schulman worked together during filming, a story that isn't often told in the world of prima-donna directors.
His relationship with the actors, too, wasn't the typical Hollywood story. He had the boys live together in a dorm to simulate their boarding-school experience. They bonded just like their characters would have at Welton. He also had them study the era, making them become familiar with 1950s music and movies.
His methods worked: the film received critical acclaim, and Weir himself was nominated for an Oscar in 1990. Doesn't get much better than that.